Study offers first glimpse of how income affects pre-schoolers' cognitive abilities and behavior

November 12, 2002

For some years, the correlation between family income on the one hand and educational and behavioral outcomes on the other has been well known. However, a new study by New York University sociologist W. Jean Yeung and two colleagues from Columbia University -- Miriam R. Linver and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn - to be published this week in the November/December issue of Child Development offers an explanation of how disparity in family incomes causes this, and finds significantly different mechanisms for the impact of family income on behavior and on educational achievement.

Yeung and colleagues studied data from a large, national survey - The Panel Study of Income Dynamics -- to learn about the ways in which family income affects children's cognitive achievement and behavior problems. The sample included 753 children who were between 3 and 5 years old in 1997.

"Countless studies have shown that family income is associated with children's development and educational attainment. Our findings suggest that family income influences children's outcomes through different pathways that could be addressed by offering packages of family services," says the study's lead author, W. Jean Yeung of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research in the Department of Sociology at New York University, writing in the November-December issue of the journal Child Development.

"If we want to improve low-income, young children's cognitive achievement, we should offer programs that seek to raise income levels, provide young children with stimulating learning materials, increase family literacy, and encourage parents to read to their children or take them on educational outings, rather than focusing solely on parenting skills," Yeung explains. "However, if instead we want to reduce children's behavior problems, we should focus on strategies to reduce income instability, and thereby improve parents' psychological well-being and parenting behavior."

Programs that promote family literacy, reduce parental stress, improve parenting and provide affordable, high-quality child care could go a long way toward improving young children's development, suggests recent research.

As expected, preschool children who lived in families with higher incomes scored higher on cognitive tests and had fewer behavior problems than those with lower family incomes. However, the researchers determined that family income may affect different aspects of children's development in distinct ways.

Much of the association between income and children's cognitive scores was found to be rooted in the family's ability to provide a stimulating learning environment. For example, higher income enabled parents to buy better living conditions and learning materials, engage in educational activities such as visits to museums, buy adequate food and pay for high-quality child care.

On the other hand, the researchers found the association between income and children's behavior was rooted in the level of economic instability at home. Low-income mothers who faced economic pressure were more likely to be emotionally distressed, less supportive, and to use punishment such as spanking.

Yeung said, "To promote all-around healthy development in children, a multi-pronged approach that offers a package of services to families that include not only cash benefits or earning supplements, but also services that are aimed at promoting family literacy, reducing parental stress, improving parenting behavior, and providing affordable quality child care will be most effective."

The researchers acknowledge that additional factors, including some that precede a child's birth, may also have a major impact on a child's life chances. For example, they found that the mother's cognitive ability, ethnicity, and child's birth weight were also important predictors of a child's ability to solve problems.
The study was supported by a research grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); a Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research HHS-ASPE/Census Bureau Small Grant; the NICHD Research Network for Family and Child Well-being; and the Michigan Interdisciplinary Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body.

For interviews: Contact W. Jean Yeung at 202-998-8381 or; Miriam R. Linver at MRL23@columbia.ed; and for "Child Development" contact Angela Dahm Mackay at 734-998-7310 or

New York University

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